The plea at the heart of every act of criticism is a plea for better, less disposable poetry. The more one reads, the more one feels that the larger part of the writing public puts the creative equivalent of a ‘half-day’ into each poem it releases into the world, contenting itself with whatever that flaccid act of play-labor produces. “On Every Hand a Great Plain,” a poem by Henry Israeli, feels like such play-labor.
The titular reference is to Dante’s Inferno: ‘and I see on every hand a great plain full of woe and torment,’ as the (just-Googled) translation of Charles Eliot Norton has it. An astute reader would recognize the allusion—I recognize only that the title seems poorly matched to the piece that follows. Whatever tenuous connection exists isn’t available through introspection or implication.
The best line of the poem is surely the first: ‘Two bears tearing at a tent[.]’ Why? If we might triangulate the poles between which real poetic power swells and rolls, a simple expression of necessary components includes sound, language, and sense. Listen to the smart interplay of the three in this terse line: the bear/tear rhyme makes a peak between the iamb and trochee of the first four syllables, and the swoop from that trochaic stress to the final syllable of the anapestic foot gives the line a flail that is mimetic of the action. For the most part, this is what makes poetry. What follows after that line is disastrous; this, friends, is the sound of prose being shoehorned into verse:
After they effortlessly crack apart the tent’s skeleton
they sit themselves down on the ground like fat generals
to survey the domain of their glorious wreckage.
In language, the ‘skeleton’ metaphor feels imprecise, dead on arrival. That sense comes, in part, from its conceptual mismatch with the adjective ‘effortlessly.’ That word adds four syllables to an already lengthy, and therefore heavy, line; and that bulkiness works against the sense it’s trying to evoke—easy, simple destruction. If those thin, pliant poles—built to bend and fold—are bones, they are the light bones of a bird, and snapping them could be nothing but effortless. If the line read something like After they snap the supports, shred the tent, the action would be more immediate, and have a shorter syllable count by one-third. But, even without being proscriptive, it’s possible to say that what’s there doesn’t work to the benefit of the piece on any of the levels I’ve suggested: not in sound, not sense, and certainly not in language.
This needless weightiness is extended into the next line via the extra syllables in ‘themselves’ and the redundant phrase ‘on the ground.’ I balk, too, at the notion in the last of the lines being considered—of the wreckage holding the ‘domain,’ rather than our destructive forest friends.
It is part of the poet’s goal to write pieces that expand the metaphorical reach of language. There are two major ways one can fail at this: first, one can play it safe, and make a metaphor that’s too close to impress—’the engine roared,’ say—or, secondly, one could compare things connected so tenuously that a reader is inclined to think the speaker of the poem wants to talk about something else entirely:
When a hunter takes out the first one
the other seems surprised—but just a little,
the way at a party a man is surprised to hear his name
called out by a face that seems too old to know him
before realizing he once dated her in high school.
Soon after this, mercifully, both bears are sent—through a bit of hypotaxis that fails in meaning what it attempts in velocity—off stage. What we’ve experienced, again, is the way in which flabby language, used imprecisely, undermines the pattern of stresses and echoes that are the heart of poetic rhythm. The piece dissolves into talk and does something much too passive to be called ‘resisting’ direct treatment of its subject.